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I've always been confused by the terms washroom, restroom, bathroom, lavatory, toilet and toilet room. My impression is that Canadians would rather say washroom while Americans would probably say bathroom or Saint John's in the same situation.

I guess the difference here is not only in different kinds of English, but also in whether one is referring to a room in their house or in some public place.

Which do you usually use? Please specify the difference if you use more than two from those six with different meanings, and also where you are from (i.e. what type of English you speak).

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This site has brought me to dismiss all of them and use "the gents", "john", or "jack", just for the fun of it. –  RegDwigнt Jan 9 '11 at 10:15
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In our somewhat uncouth house in the North-East of England this room is generally referred to as the "bog". –  Brian Hooper Jan 9 '11 at 11:49
    
Anyone interesting could also have a look over here... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khazi#Etymology –  Brian Hooper Jan 9 '11 at 15:54
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As an aside, I've always found it amusing that Canadians use the genteelism “washroom” to avoid the word “toilet” but then the word “toilet” is always there on the sign due the requirement for French translations. –  nohat Jan 9 '11 at 18:29
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@nohat: Actually most washrooms in Canada don't have bilingual signs. Only in certain cities or in government buildings. And also common signage will use symbols, or the words "Men/Hommes", etc. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 10 '11 at 15:48

10 Answers 10

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I'm American, and I've never heard the bathroom referred to as St. John's. It's colloquially referred to as the john, but not politely. Usually this room is referred to euphemistically, and there are degrees of social class associated with the terms. Here are a few, in order of most to least polite or high-class.

  • The gentlemen's (or ladies') room
  • The men's (or women's) room
  • The restroom
  • The washroom
  • The bathroom
  • The facility
  • The toilet
  • The john
  • The jakes
  • The crapper
  • The shitter
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Thanks Robusto for this input, but you only added more fuel to the fire. So far I would want to know only the differences between those terms that I mentioned in my question. –  brilliant Jan 9 '11 at 12:43
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@brilliant: The arrangement in levels of politeness is the only operative distinction. That is a difference, and the main one, among all the words you list as well. –  Robusto Jan 9 '11 at 12:45
    
@Robusto: Aaaah! I see. Is this the case only in American English or it's this way in other types of English as well? –  brilliant Jan 9 '11 at 12:53
    
@Robusto: I heard "St. John's" from one American guy who is from Texas. –  brilliant Jan 9 '11 at 13:06
    
Don't forget 'the water closet.' –  rightfold Jan 9 '11 at 18:13

I'm English, and agree with Robusto that I've never heard the phrase St. John's.

Although I have heard the room in question being referred to euphemistically as "The bathroom", I believe this to be an Americanism. Unless the bath is actually in there, it's a toilet, or a "loo" in more polite society.

In my house the bath is in the same room as the toilet, so the room is referred to in our house as a bathroom, but one were caught short in a public place I would normally expect one to ask "where is the nearest toilet?" as opposed to "where is the nearest bathroom/washroom/restroom?", although I'm certain their meaning would be understood.

I don't hear many people refer to it as a lavatory any more, although maybe that's more a reflection on the company I keep. Certainly though some people refer to it as a "Lavvy", which is just a reduction of lavatory.

I certainly haven't heard anyone in the south of England refer to it as a washroom or restroom, and I personally would not refer to it as such. Again, perhaps this is an American thing?

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Thank you Andy for this answer. I heard "St. John's" from one American guy who is from Texas. –  brilliant Jan 9 '11 at 13:08
    
"Restroom" is definitely American. Canadians prefer "washroom" or "bathroom" (the presence of a bath is not required). –  Karl Knechtel Aug 29 '11 at 11:54

In the US we typically say "bathroom" for the room in our home that contains the toilet.

When in public and trying to be polite we ask directions to the "restroom". Indeed, most signs in restaurants, bars and airports will use the word "Restrooms" to direct people to the toilet.

My limited experience in the UK is that everyone is more literal and uses the word "Toilet". Many years ago in a museum in the UK I asked a guard for directions to the "restroom". He said "There's no place here for you to lay down, sir." I expect he was "taking the piss" which is an entirely different thing.

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+1 for "the taking the piss" reference. –  Andy F Jan 9 '11 at 14:22
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Exceptional piss-taking for the guard to have said “no place to lay down” to you, rather than the expected British English “nowhere to lie down”... ;-) –  Brian Nixon Jan 11 '11 at 13:43
    
@Brian - that's a 15+ year old memory. And he may have actually said "no room where..." - he did seem genuinely puzzled IIRC, but in hindsight, piss-taking he probably was. –  John Satta Jan 11 '11 at 13:52

The room used for defecation is almost always referred to by euphemism.

Bathroom

In Britain this still means a room containing a bath.

Lavatory

This used to mean no more than a room used for washing. It was identical to washroom. "From Late Latin lavātōrium, from Latin lavāre to wash."

Toilet

The word toilet is a euphemism. It previously was used to refer to the early morning routine of preparing for the day by washing, combing hair and applying various potions. So far as I know it did not include defecation and was therefore a perfectly innocuous and polite subject for general conversation. It can be startling to read the word when used in that sense in older books or artworks.

Titian - A woman at her toilet A woman at her toilet - Titian.

W.C.

A euphemism in Britain (and some European countries) was water closet, nowadays abbreviated to W.C. Taken literally it implies no more than a small room provided with a supply of water - nothing offensive there.

WC sign from UK signmaker

Popularity

The British National Corpus provides these counts

toilet      1540
lavatory     546
WC           227
W.C.          13

Progression

It seems that euphemisms must be constantly renewed by replacement as they become tainted by association with the taboo subject. This replacement proceeds at different rates in different countries, cultures or social groups. This means that, in time, new words must also be found for the existing meanings of words like convenience.

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"A common euphemism in Britain is water closet..." is entirely false. –  e100 Jan 10 '11 at 18:01
    
@e101: I have amended my reply pending some research. –  RedGrittyBrick Jan 10 '11 at 18:07
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"WC" is far5 more common on mainland Europe than Britain. –  Richard Jul 28 '11 at 15:54
    
Notwithstanding this version of "In the Quartermaster's Stores", when I was a boy scout (Southern UK) we always sang My eyes are dim, I cannot see, I left my specs in the W.C. –  FumbleFingers Mar 20 '12 at 22:17

I'm English, and would probably use 'toilet' most of the time, and always in the context of a private home. Or I might use 'loo' which is more informal, but maybe outdated/whimsical. Actually, on reflection, I think there's a subtle and complex social class issue around these two. Not sure myself exactly how it works, but anyone using 'lavatory' is probably related to the royal family, or wishes they were. But then 'lav'is somehow at the other end of the scale.

'Bathroom' is never used and is often found funny when used by Americans. So is their discomfort when you use 'toilet' in the US.

I might use Ladies and Gents in the context of a public facility/bar/restaurant - signage will often use these terms, although perhaps more often written Gentlemen. Actually, thinking about it, I'd always use Gents in a pub, possibly there's a need to reinforce one's own gender identity!

I can't think I've ever heard WC, but I've seen it used on architects' drawings, probably for reasons of space.

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In terms of social and class issues I was regularly beaten by my parents, and god-parents to say loo, not toilet. Toilet is unbearably common, and good little boys should never use it, apparently. In a similar way, lavatory is even more plebeian than toilet. –  Alex Mar 20 '12 at 21:05

I'd just like to agree with 2revs. For my sins, I went to quite a posh private school, and saying toilet was a definite no-no. Lavatory was the standard word, but at school most people said bog. So I was happy when loo left its original 'U' niche, and became fairly classless. I've lived outside the UK for ten years, but I wasn't aware loo had become dated.

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Of all international words in current usage, I believe that "toilet" is the one most widely considered non-U all over Europe, including England. A reference: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U_and_non-U_English . I heard things were different across the pond, though. // In Holland, the taboo on "toilet" is now even seeping through to the upper middle class. As soon as the lower classes will have stopped using it, the cycle will be complete, and the upper classes might start using it again. So silly. –  Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 0:58
    
@Cerberus - What made it even sillier was there was a quaint idea that the upper and working classes shared a preference for 'calling a spade a spade' and that only the middle class went in for euphemisms - such cross class solidarity! I've always wondered if the working class saw it in quite the same light. And of course 'lavatory' is just as much a euphemism as 'toilet'. It's simply Latin euphemism vs French euphemism. That Wikipedia article is excellent, by the way - I'm afraid that's the way I was brought up to speak. –  RandomIdeaEnglish Jan 10 '11 at 14:39
    
@RandomIdeaEnglish: I think there is something in that: u. class and w. class do share some older, simpler phrasings that m. class has dropped. In addition, u. class tends to pick up occasional idioms and pronunciation from servants and peasants, mainly in the country, which often start as ironic or affectionate imitation; this is very clear in Dutch. But you're right that many euphemisms originate in u. class before they get discarded. I do think that m. class tries to be more catholic than the Pope and overdoes it on the euphemisms. –  Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 14:55
    
@RandomIdeaEnglish: Oh, about class solidarity: w. class might have it to some degree, but I suspect that many won't make a distinction between u. class and m. class. // I used to resist U-speak too when I wasn't allowed to say certain words. Now I try to justify it by looking at it as an aesthetic thing, just like clothing and furniture. It's not too bad as long as you don't think U people are better people. // What also interests me is to what degree such things are the same internationally. –  Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 15:12
    
@Cerberus - Hi, it was meant as a joke, perhaps I should have said inter-class solidarity. :). Although I still have an RP accent, I think most of that 'U' stuff was knocked out of me at college, as we were in a distinct minority. And I really went off it when then the 'Ya's' came along. 'Are you going to the Hamilton-Smythes do?' - 'Oh, ya. Rather'. Our neighbourhood was 'gentrified' and they used the street itself rather like a public school (BrE meaning) common room, 'Ya this' and 'ya that' at the tops of their voices. Does it matter that we're wandering off-topic, by the way? –  RandomIdeaEnglish Jan 11 '11 at 20:27

In the military, the navy, coast guard, and marines refer to the bathroom as the head, the reason being that in the olden days the bathroom was positioned at the bow of the ship.

The army and air force refer to the bathroom as the latrine.

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I'm Canadian and we most commonly refer to it as the "washroom", which some of my American friends consider weird. When being informal, "bathroom" is the next most common non-slang term.

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In Australia, it's almost universally called "the toilet", even amongst strangers (e.g. if asking someone the way to the nearest public toilets, you'd be inclined to ask "do you know where the toilet is?" or perhaps "do you know where the toilets are?").

Americanism is fairly pervasive here, though, so it's not entirely unheard of to say "I need to go to the bathroom", but it's definitely less common.

Australian English often co-opts a bastardisation of both British and American English with some local variation thrown in. For instance we use both "lift" and "elevator" to mean the same thing.

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I'm Canadian and we very seldom use "restroom" in spoken language, although you'll sometimes find it on signs in restaurants and whatnot. The most common term round here is "washroom" — "bathroom" is sometimes used, but only really in a house where the room actually would have a bath. One might also say either "men's room" or "ladies' room" (very seldom gentleman's or women's), but that's generally in public places where there's actually a distinction, and even then it's fairly uncommon, used most often by people attempting to be more polite.

I've never heard the phrase "St. John" in my life, and when people say "the John" they're usually trying to be funny. As far as "loo" or "lavatory" goes, I've only heard those said in either an affected tone or a false British accent, at least in Canada.

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I was in a restaurant in Florida once when my colleauge asked the waitress where the "washrooms" were. She said "You must be Canadian." Apparently in Florida but toilets are called "restrooms". I think in both Canada and the U.S. a "bathroom" is found in a residence, not a public place. –  Joel Brown Jul 7 '12 at 13:21

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